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Easy-to-grab pills sending more kids to ER

| Wednesday, March 20, 2013, 6:09 p.m.

Small children who land in the hospital emergency room because of swallowing the wrong medication rarely get the stuff from a medicine cabinet or drawer, a report suggests.

Instead, children take pills or bottles off the floor, out of sofa cushions or from purses, countertops and other easy-to-see spots, according to the report, released on Wednesday by the nonprofit group Safe Kids Worldwide, based in Washington.

The medications that prompt a scramble to the emergency room usually belong to adults — most often mothers and grandparents, according to records studied by the group.

Kids “are getting medications from Mom's purse and Grandma's pillbox,” said Rennie Ferguson, a researcher for Safe Kids. She looked at 2,315 emergency department records on children as old as 4, compiled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 2011.

About 67,000 young children visited emergency rooms that year for accidental exposures to medication.

Such cases grew by 30 percent in a decade, the report says. Previous reports have noted a similar increase, amid a growing number of prescription and non-prescription medications in homes. Emergency room case counts fell slightly between 2010 and 2011, but the difference wasn't statistically significant, Ferguson says.

In cases where records noted the source of the medications, 27 percent came from the floor or had been otherwise misplaced; 20 percent came from a purse, bag or wallet. About 20 percent had been left out on counters, dressers, tables or nightstands, and 15 percent came from a pillbox or bag of pills. Another 6 percent came from a cabinet or drawer.

The drugs belonged to adults in 86 percent of cases, the report adds. Moms (31 percent) and grandparents (38 percent) were the most common sources.

The findings are not surprising, said Salvador Baeza, a pharmacist who directs the West Texas Regional Poison Center in El Paso. He was not involved in the report.

“You have some grandparents who have their whole pharmacy on the kitchen counter or the bathroom counter, and it is there for the taking,” he says.

Even careful parents who keep their medications in a safe spot can let their guard down, he says, and briefly leave medications unsecured. “These accidents can happen in an instant,” he adds.

But there are many things parents and caregivers can do to minimize risks, says Kate Carr, Safe Kids president and CEO. The first is to store medications out of sight and out of reach — “up and away” in the catchphrase of an ongoing medication safety campaign led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The data are good evidence that small children infrequently get into properly stored medication, Carr said.

If you are afraid that you might forget to take or give medication that is stored away out of sight, consider using a cellphone alarm or other reminders, she suggests.

Parents can make sure visitors don't leave medications lying around in their purses or coat pockets, she says. They also should speak up and ask that medications be stored away when their children visit the homes of grandparents, other relatives or friends.

“That can be an awkward conversation,” Carr says. “But you can just say that ‘I have a very curious child who is just at that age where they get into everything.'” When you do think a child has taken any medication improperly, the best thing to do is call the national Poison Help Line at 800-222-1222, Baeza says.

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